The Three R’s of Anxiety Management
Occasionally a child’s fear gets so big it’s difficult to manage in the moment. This can be tough for the child and parents. When this happens, the child may experience tummy aches, a racing heartbeat, headaches, intrusive thoughts, hyperventilation, dizziness or other debilitating symptoms that take over the entire body. As a parent, you can help your child manage these big feelings and get back on track.
To support an anxious child in moments of distress, remember the three R’s:
First, recognize what your child is feeling. Notice what their body is doing and what they say about the feeling. Stating what you notice out loud will A) teach your child how to recognize these things and B) assure them that you realize what they are experiencing. For example, “ I can see you’re feeling really worried right now. Your tummy hurts and I can see you’re tense.”
Then help your child recognize it’s an anxiety reaction. This will teach them to realize this for themselves and help them to understand it’s the anxiety taking over. For example, “Looks like that anxiety is at it again.” Or, “Looks like your anxiety is trying to be the boss again.”
Helpful Hint: It is always okay to recognize the feeling. You do NOT always have to recognize the source of the fear. Why? The feeling is real, but sometimes the source of that feeling is not.
The next goal is to reduce the intensity of the anxious feeling. Help your child calm and sooth themselves. Do not expect them to calm down on their own. Participate in the calming activities with them.
- Reduce stimuli: find a quiet place, step outside.
- Encourage slow, deep breathing.
- Do some grounding by noticing things around you.
- Encourage self-soothing: baths, music, movement.
- Offer hugs if it seems helpful.
- Ignore or minimalize:
- “It will be fine.”
- “You’re okay”
- “It’s not that bad”
- Use logic to try and convince your child their fears are unwarranted.
- Going into detail about their fear.
Helpful Hint: When your child is feeling an intense emotion, they are in reaction mode. Their brain is not able to think clearly or rationally. By helping your child reduce their anxious feelings, you’re helping them return to clear thinking.
After your child feels a bit calmer, redirect their energy into something else. Perhaps they would like to go outside to play, use a toy, have a snack, or play with a pet. This is not the time to rehash what just happened. The child is still returning to optimal thinking and may not be ready.
Later, you can revisit the incident. Discuss what your child did that was helpful. Do not focus on the source of the fears or anxiety. Praise them for their actions.
Helpful Hint: Your child might not be ready to be alone just yet. They may need you to start the activity with them. You could play a quick game (Uno, Connect Four, Candyland), and then suggest an activity they could do by themselves. Or you could find something to do together as a family.
Based on work by Dr. Steven O’Brien